A New Generation Displaced


On 17 October, the United Nations’s I ndependent Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste released its report into who was responsible for the violence of April and May this year. Fighting broke out in Dili the night after. It could almost have been an orchestrated exercise for the hundreds of international Joint Task Force (JTF) members who had arrived the day before. However, the escalation of the violence over the ensuing week with several people killed and scores of houses burnt proved this was no exercise.

In last week’s rampage, a JTF member, firing in self defence killed a local. The death has been incorrectly attributed to Australian forces (in the case of the Timorese press, maliciously; in the case of the Australian media, negligently). Two more murders have been blamed alternately on Australian forces directly, or Australian forces releasing detainees in an enemy area. They were murdered by thugs not in the employ of the ADF. Australian forces have since become targets.

For months now, there has been daily stone throwing and smashing of windscreens in Dili. Gangs swell and then dissipate into the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps or surrounding streets before the police arrive. Violence then erupts at another location the mood switching from tedium to terror in a flash. ‘Ambon arrows,’ vicious darts chiselled from screwdrivers that have to be cut out of a body, are fired from slingshots and improvised crossbows with such force to smash through two car side windows.

The shells of almost 1000 houses, in areas where people from the east and west of East Timor once lived as neighbours, bear the tags of the gangs responsible for the burnings. Graffiti scrawled on walls attacks opposing sides: Bairo nee la simu ema firaku ‘easterners are not welcome in this suburb;’ Loromonu han laho ‘westerners eat rats;’ Loromonu naok hanesan ‘westerners are thieves.’ But the talk of conflict between east and west is misleading shorthand. The problem runs far deeper, and ethnic rivalry has never been a concern. The problem is political and economic, underpinned by a culture of taking direct action for perceived grievances.

People seek protection and security in the IDP camps in the same town as the violence they are fleeing occurred. But they then also become very visible, almost captive targets. When a barbed wire fence was proposed at the airport camp to defend against attack, the people complained that they are not prisoners. Next day, they came under the attack that ignited last week’s troubles

Tension is rife in the camps where 40,000 people live under the ubiquitous United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents and tarpaulins in the Dili district. They seek shelter in church and school grounds, clinics, parks, government and NGO properties, the airport and prison. Their needs in health, education, food, shelter, water and sanitation are being met by more than 30 local and international NGOs, government departments, UN agencies and religious charities. Camp population size ranges from a few hundred to several thousand. A further 80,000 have fled the capital.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Those who remain in the camps in Dili are a mix of easterners with jobs and businesses some of whom may have lived here for a generation or more and westerners too afraid of the violence to return to their homes. Gangs set up road blocks and checkpoints, looking for easterners, whom they drag from the vehicle to beat, slash and kill. International aid agencies providing humanitarian relief to the IDPs are also targeted in this polarising war, they are considered accomplices.

Following the rumours of the Australian military killing East Timorese, some of the more bellicose IDPs prevented drinking water from entering the airport camp accusing the Australian soldiers protecting the delivery of poisoning the water supply.

The transition from resistance to independence leaves its legacy. Some former resistance groups have transformed into martial arts groups not accountable to anyone, and susceptible to manipulation. Fighting between them is common. Some martial arts groups have aligned themselves with political Parties, heightening the potential for conflict at next year’s election.

Martial arts groups sometimes overlap with police and military, and loyalties may be compromised. One gang leader, Abilio Mesquita, was also Dili’s Deputy Commander of Police. He was arrested earlier this year for distributing weapons to his gang members and is currently in prison awaiting trial for an attack on the home of the Defence Force Chief, Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak. (Both Mesquita and Ruak are mentioned in the UN’S report.)

The way in which the police (PNTL) and army (F-FDTL) were formed after independence has helped foment the problem. The F-FDTL was drawn from former guerillas, while the PNTL were often chosen from East Timorese who had served with the Indonesian police who occupied the country for 25 years. This was a pragmatic way to get around recruiting a force with no experience, but perhaps also a little too expedient creating a mistrust and a perceived animosity between the forces. (Adding to the perception that the east did all the fighting against the Indonesians, the 1st F-FDTL battalion, comprised mainly of former guerillas, is based in the east, while the 2nd, mainly new recruits, is in the west.)

When independence came to East Timor in May 2002, there was hope for the future. However, by the end of that year, people had been killed and buildings burnt in the first wave of post-independence violence. A few years of relative peace followed, with a survey in 2003 showing that a majority of East Timorese thought things were getting better.

Now, amid a sense of helplessness, there is a new generation of the displaced and a culture of dependency has emerged. The international community must act within the constraints of the sovereign government. Short of coercively targeted aid, it cannot force people to leave the camps and return to their (sometimes burnt out) homes. The rains have already begun, and all the international community can do is elevate and reinforce the camps against flooding and conduct health awareness campaigns.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.